Until the 1950s, education in Bhutan was mainly monastic. Literacy was confined to the monasteries, and many eminent Bhutanese scholars traveled to Tibet to study Buddhist scriptures.
In the 1950s, under the second king, His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck, Bhutan opened its first secular schools, with both the curriculum and the medium of instruction (Hindi) borrowed from India. But it was in the 1960s, under the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, that Bhutan began to build its education system in earnest. Realizing that the small, isolated country needed to be able to communicate with the rest of the world, the third king made English the language of instruction. This laid the foundations for the network of primary, secondary and post-secondary institutions spread across Bhutan today.
At first, schools in Bhutan were few and rudimentary, and could only offer primary education. With few teachers of its own, Bhutan had to recruit teachers, mainly from neighboring India. In the early days, Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese teachers alike had to endure daily hardships and make arduous journeys over treacherous mountain passes and through leech-infested jungles to bring education to the most inaccessible parts of the country.
With the school system still in its early stages, a number of Bhutanese students were sent to study at the highly acclaimed missionary schools in Darjeeling, India. Impressed by the quality of education in these schools, the Bhutan Government asked a Canadian Jesuit, Fr. William Mackey SJ, to leave his school in Darjeeling and help set up a high school system in Bhutan. The Jesuits and nuns who came to Bhutan in the 1960s and '70s worked to establish a fully Bhutanese school system that would strengthen the country's indigenous cultural and religious traditions while helping its people to modernize.
Since then, education has contributed significantly to Bhutan's rapid development, in line with its philosophy of "Gross National Happiness." Being educated in English has enabled Bhutanese students to study in all parts of the world, earning degrees in everything from accounting to medicine to visual arts, and to return to Bhutan to apply their knowledge and skills.
Today, the education system includes formal, non-formal, and monastic schools. Enrolment in the formal system begins at age six, but students can apply to the monastic schools at any age. The non-formal centers provide basic literacy skills for all ages. The government provides free education to all students until Grade 10 and scholarships to students who meet the requirements for higher and professional studies.
The educational structure provides for 11 years of basic schooling: one year of pre-primary schooling, six years of primary, two years of junior high and two years of high school. Students undergo an examination to move from primary to junior high, and another to graduate from junior high to high school.
According to the Annual Education Statistics 2013 produced by the Ministry of Education, there are 575 formal schools and institutions, 388 monastic schools and 885 non- formal education centers in Bhutan. In the formal schools, girls make up 50.2% enrolment.